3 Dec 2010 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

As a helping skill, challenging is about bringing into focus discrepancies in the other person’s feelings, thinking or behaviour that they are tending to overlook or ignore.

In everyday life, “challenging someone” can have negative connotations, carrying the idea of conflict and confrontation. In the field of counselling skills it means something slightly different.

Each of us perceives the world differently – we have our own unique ways of interpreting what’s going on, which may involve our own particular way of distorting things, and our own particular blind spots. One person may habitually react to criticism where no criticism is intended, another may fail to notice when they’re being treated unfairly, though they notice it with others.

Challenging is about bringing into focus discrepancies in the other person’s feelings, thinking or behaviour that they are tending to overlook or ignore.

Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt Therapy, used to say "the neurotic is the person who is unable to see the obvious", and where our own blind spots and distortions differ from the client’s, we are in a position to feed back to them discrepancies that we notice from our different perspective.

Challenging discrepancies is best done sensitively and respectfully:

    Counsellor: “You say you feel very calm but I notice that your foot is tapping”.

    Client: “… here am I acting as if it’s a big deal”.

    Counsellor: “It is a big deal - it's huge.”

This is another reason why self-development is important. If we share the client‘s blind spots and distortions, or if we let our own anxieties become a block to effectively challenging them, we may end up colluding to avoid issues. We are never totally free of our own blind spots but as professional practitioners we are continually committed to shrinking them, and to being aware of how our own issues influence our perceptions and behaviour.


The Working Alliance

The working alliance or therapeutic alliance is the commitment between client and therapist to jointly work on the client’s issues or problems, even when one or other doesn't want to.

We use our rapport skills to help strengthen this alliance, and by being boundaried and by manifesting the core conditions we can build up a sense of safety and trust in the relationship that also helps build it.

How a therapist chooses to challenge a client may depend on the strength of this alliance. Initially, challenge may be tentative:

    “I recall that you want to work on problems in your relationship, but I notice that for the last few minutes you’ve been talking about your pension scheme”.

Where the working alliance has had perhaps months or even years to develop, the challenges might become more robust:

    “You seem to be rambling now ... What’s all that about?”


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